Shame and Vulnerability
In this past week plus, because of all of the time I have spent in transit to one place or another, I have been listening to a lot of podcasts. One podcast was from one of my favorite APR “shows” called “On Being”, and was about vulnerability. It starts out with the host saying, “In a culture where we like to fix or prevent vulnerability, Brené Brown is reviving the knowledge that our struggles make us who we are.”
That was enough to get my attention – a culture where we like to fix or prevent vulnerability. This is a woman who is deliberately exploring things that make most people uncomfortable – and she admits that at times, it makes her uncomfortable. She didn’t start out examining vulnerability, though; she was examining shame, a concept to which, she says, “people have one of two responses: I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have anything to do with me, or I know exactly what you’re talking about and I don’t want to discuss it with you.”
What does she mean by this? Basically, the feeling that we are not good enough – in who we are, in what we do. Where does our shame come from? In my opinion, it is fear. Fear that we are not living up to who we can be, fear that we are letting people (including ourselves) down. A place where we are not able to accept ourselves. Most of all, fear that we will get hurt if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
The researcher discussed her conversations with numerous people who, as she describes it, “are like me and they’re like a lot of the people I know. You know, they struggle, they’re trying their best, but their lives seem so different than mine. They really seem to engage with the world from this place of worthiness. You know, they say, yeah, I’m screwing things up and I’m imperfect and I’m afraid, but I’m still worthy of love and belonging, like their love and belonging wasn’t on the table, it wasn’t negotiable.”
So are these people who have lived charmed lives, with no traumatic events, no periods of despair? Contrary to what a person would think, no. They simply had a different way of looking at these events and these periods. They cultivated within themselves certain characteristics which enabled them to deal with difficult things and vulnerability without going to shame. And what do they avoid doing, which is so common in our society but is not productive? Comparing themselves to others. Tying our self-worth to productivity rather than creativity.
So what does any of this have to do with vulnerability, and what is vulnerability, anyway? According to the researcher, “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experience.” More powerfully, she said, “To me, vulnerability is courage. It’s about the willingness to show up and be seen in our lives. And in those moments when we show up, I think those are the most powerful meaning-making moments of our lives even if they don’t go well. I think they define who we are.”
Vulnerability is courage. The willingness to show up in our lives. To live life, not in a routine, not in fear, not in competition, but by being. Showing up in all ways – being present, being mindful. Showing up and being who you are, and treating others in a mindful way. That is how I view her statement. She went on to talk about vulnerability and its link to courage. She asked people to think of the last time they did something that they thought was really brave or the last time they saw someone do something really brave.
The answers she received were not related to super-human feats or rescuing people from trauma: “I cannot find a single example of courage, moral courage, spiritual courage, leadership courage, relational courage, I cannot find a single example of courage in my research that was not born completely of vulnerability.”
That’s not to say that it is easy: as a matter of fact, the researcher discussed how decidedly UNcomfortable it is, how it is not fun. But it is real. “Whatever your daring is, however you’re trying to show up in your life, I think there’s something incredibly contagious and powerful about it. I think it makes the people around us a little bit braver and I think it helps us get very clear on the ideals and values that guide our lives.”
So what does it mean, and how do we go about living this way? At a time when many of us feel especially vulnerable (this is a feeling with which I am well aware), how do we utilize this vulnerability without letting it become fear? Did our “allergy to vulnerability”, as the host put it, our collective ignoring of vulnerability, mean that we have lost the tools for making it into a positive? The host put it this way: “You have this really great sentence, ‘Feeling vulnerable, imperfect, and afraid is human. It’s when we lose our capacity to hold space for these struggles that we become dangerous.’ It seemed to me now that that’s one way to describe what is happening in our culture and our political life. We have no space to be honest about that, to be vulnerable, to be imperfect and afraid together, and it’s become dangerous.”
Have we become so enamored with a sense of imperviability that we have become dangerous? Are we so in denial about our own vulnerability that we have gone simply to fear and reaction?
It’s hard to be vulnerable. We are taught that it is a bad thing to be; we must always be brave, never show vulnerability, because that is “weakness”. But is it weaker to show vulnerability and have the courage to be honest and present, or to try to deny it and ultimately end up in a more dangerous place (dangerous can have many meanings here). That leads to blaming, rather than examining and struggling and moving forward. Is that where we want to be? As long as we are able to see what vulnerability really is – another form of courage – it becomes easier to work on living in a way that we allow ourselves to show this, to show up, and to be wholehearted in how we live.